Analyzing the Five Biggest Trades From NHL Draft Weekend

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For those underwhelmed by the lack of transactions surrounding the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft last week, the 2021 Entry Draft represented another opportunity for general managers around the league to give their roster a facelift, and did they ever deliver.

Due to the NHL’s stagnating salary cap, which will presumably remain frozen at around $81 million for the next several seasons as the league and its franchises slowly recover from the financial losses brought upon by the pandemic, several teams were forced into clearing their books as they found themselves uncomfortably pressed up against the cap ceiling.

With the context of immeasurable financial constraint established, let’s take a look at several of the most significant trades that were completed this past weekend.

Philadelphia Flyers acquire Rasmus Ristolainen in exchange for defenseman Robert Hagg, 2021 first-round draft pick (14th overall) and 2023 second-round draft pick.

This was the first domino to fall on Saturday, as the Sabres parted ways with their longest-tenured defensemen and signalled that they are fully committing to another long rebuild in the hopes that this time, the harvest will be fruitful.

Since he entered the league, Ristolainen’s underlying metrics grade him out as one of the league’s worst defensemen in terms of driving play and the rate at which his team surrenders high-quality chances when he is on the ice, which can be partly attributed to the weight of responsibility thrust upon him as a result of the bone-thin blueline that Buffalo often iced during his rocky tenure.

Ristolainen leaves the organization as the 37th highest point scorer in franchise history, and 6th among all defensemen. He can also claim four 40+ point seasons, most of which were attained as the lone offensive option on teams bereft of any tangible attacking talent.

For Philadelphia, the hope is that the 6’4” Ristolainen can better utilize his physical gifts and approach his once sky-high potential while playing a significantly sheltered role behind Ivan Provorov and their other high-profile offseason acquisition, Ryan Ellis. If the Flyers can pair him with a defensively conscious partner while more effectively managing his ice-time, the most destructive of Ristolainen’s impulses may be deterred, but I wouldn’t wager on that happening.

His 36.58 shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this season was the 20th worst rate amongst all defensemen, and is emblematic of his entire Sabres career to this point. The man bleeds chances like nobody’s business.

However, Ristolainen still posseses a heavy shot that can be a threat on the power play, and doesn’t hesitate to throw his body around, but his questionable decision making and lack of defensive awareness neutralize any benefits he may offer, and makes him a liability anytime he steps onto the ice.

In the event that Ristolainen’s play continues to crater, his contract expires following this season and the Flyers could simply let him test free agency, but that would represent an unconscionably poor use of the assets they relinquished to acquire him in the first place.

The Sabres did well to unshackle themselves of Ristolainen’s almost $5 million cap hit without retention while simultaneously recouping valuable assets in a first- (used to select Isak Rosen) and second-round pick to go along with Hagg, a young but unspectacular blueliner who has posted average results on the bottom pair thus far in his career.

With the highly touted 2022 and 2023 drafts on the horizon, the Sabres are rightly stripping their roster of NHL-calibre skaters with an eye on asset accumulation, and this deal accomplishes their goals on both fronts.

The Verdict: The Sabres rid themselves of one of the most burdensome boat anchors in the league while accumulating future assets. Buffalo wins this one handily.

St. Louis Blues acquire forward Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Sammy Blais and a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

Tom Wilson really broke the Rangers, eh?

The brawl-filled, late-season matchups between the Rangers and Wilson’s Capitals coupled with New York falling short of the playoffs told owner Jim Dolan all he needed to know about the direction that his franchise was headed, for better or for worse.

The notoriously hot-headed figurehead abruptly axed both of the Rangers’ front office leaders in team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton, after it was reported that they disagreed on the release of a team statement regarding Tom Wilson’s behaviour in their previous games.

As such, the Rangers’ offseason moves have thus far valued truculence and pugnacity, and to not be pushed around by the likes of Wilson, which formed the impetus of their trade with the Blues.

Their first significant move of the offseason came in the form of the acquisition and subsequent signing of Barclay Goodrow, fresh off of back-to-back Cup wins with Tampa Bay, to a questionable six-year, $21.8 million extension (~$3.6 million per year) for a bottom-six forward. It’s not Buchnevich, but bear with me.

Goodrow was a strong supporting piece for the defending champions but much of his success was driven by the fact that his line was afforded the opportunity to feast on other teams’ lesser skaters, and while he was signed for a contract valued under $1 million.

If you’re going to commit a lot of money to a player, you better be doing so with skaters who are going to be meet or exceed the value expected of a large contract, something Goodrow is very unlikely to accomplish. The countless examples of franchise’s whiffing on big contracts given to role players should be warning for every general manager, but some simply never learn.

In comparison, Buchnevich is due a new contract and after agreeing to a two-year bridge deal, he would likely try to cash in on his nearly point-per-game performance last season, a deal which may have been too rich for the Rangers who are also trying to maintain flexibility for a potential blockbuster deal for Buffalo’s Jack Eichel. Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool has Buchnevich likely signing a four- or five-year deal worth around $6 million a year, which is fair for the benefit of locking Buchnevich up for the remainder of his prime years.

While the Rangers see such a projection as unfeasible given they still have to re-sign reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox and goaltender Igor Shesterkin to new deals, they should have used their cap space more wisely considering Buchnevich’s considerable talent.

The 2020-21 season was Buchnevich’s most productive of his career, as the Russian winger finished 23rd in the NHL in even strength scoring, and tied for 31st in primary assists at 5-on-5, playing a large part in facilitating the Rangers’ offence.

For the Blues, obtaining a strong play-driving winger who is responsible defensively while also scoring at an impressive clip for a second-round pick that might one day be as good as Buchnevich currently, is an absolute steal. Blais is a serviceable bottom-six winger who can be plugged in for his solid defensive results, but is only a makeweight in this deal.

The Verdict: The Blues get a young top-six winger for relatively little while the Rangers continue to value the wrong traits in their roster construction. Blues come out on top with this one.

Vancouver Canucks acquire defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for forwards Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel and a first-round pick (9th overall) in the 2021 NHL Draft, a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and a seventh-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.

At first glance, this trade looks like a big win for Jim Benning and the Canucks. Sanitizing their books of the exorbitant deals paid out to role players immediately clears space out for Vancouver to pen their young stars in Elias Petersson and Quinn Hughes to hefty long-term extensions, while also coralling a talented young winger in Conor Garland, who is under team control for the purposes of his next contract.

However, look slightly further and you’ll discover that this transaction is another example in a long line of mismanagement by Jim Benning, who has continually misjudged his franchise’s trajectory and place in the NHL’s hierarchy and hampered their ability to assemble a competitive roster around their franchise cornerstones as they approach their peak years.

Instead of waiting another year for the contracts of Eriksson, Beagle, and Roussel to simultaneously expire and free up around $12 million in cap room, Benning willingly took on the gargantuan commitment necessitated by Ekman-Larsson, who hasn’t played at the level expected of someone on his contract for several seasons, to be able to lock up his young stars. Not to mention, Benning signed those players to the exorbitant contracts to begin with, and has resorted to cannabilizing his own supply of assets in response.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson used to be one of the league’s premier offensive defensemen, posting five seasons of at least 40 points, and one with 39. Unfortunately, those days have long passed, and the Swedish defenceman is still owed $8.25 million per year for the next 6 (six!) years, making him the 8th highest paid blueliner in the NHL. Yikes. His offensive production is still respectable, but his ability to defend has fallen off of a cliff and playing so many minutes in Arizona certainly hasn’t helped.

Yet, Benning should be given praise for managing to extract Garland in this deal, as the winger is one of the league’s most under-appreciated scorers. His 1.31 primary assists per 60 minutes at even strength places him at 15th in the NHL, just behind Toronto’s Mitch Marner, and Garland was also 41st in his shots per 60 rate, painting him as an offensive dual threat. His slight frame and elusive agility also help him evade oncoming forecheckers and draw penalties to the tune of just over 2 per 60 minutes, good enough for 3rd among all NHL skaters this past season according to Natural Stat Trick.

According to Evolving Hockey, Garland’s projected deal comes in at 4 years and just under $4.7 million per year, which would be right in line with his league-wide production and he could immediately form a frightening tandem with Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser in the Canucks top six.

Benning knows its playoffs or bust next season for Vancouver, with the failure to qualify for the postseason likely spelling the end of his lengthy tenure as general manager. The trade will likely improve the Canucks next season although Ekman-Larsson’s albatross of a contract and their relinquishing of the 9th overall pick mean the problem is only kicked further down the road.

The Verdict: While the trade gives Vancouver short-term flexibility and a talented young winger, they paid a heavy price to rid themselves of bad deals, only to take on an even worse, and much longer one in return. The Coyotes should be happiest with their haul here as they continue their rebuild.

Chicago Blackhawks acquire defenseman Seth Jones, a 2021 first-round pick (32nd overall) and a sixth-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for defenseman Adam Boqvist, a first-round pick and a second-round selection at the 2021 NHL Draft.

While this was the most significant of the weekend’s transactions, it was the least surprising as the Blackhawks were reported to have been frontrunners for Jones from the outset of the offseason. The Blackhawks then signed Jones to a monstrous eight-year, $76 million extension that will take effect beginning in the 2022-23 season, which will give Jones the third highest cap hit among all NHL defencemen. 

Jones is the latest skater to be a polarizing figure in the clash between traditional (ie. the eye test) and analytical evaluators, with his tantalizing physical gifts and draft pedigree cited as factors clouding Jones’ underwhelming underlying metrics for a player of his supposed value around the league.

Jones has been highly regarded for playing well under extreme usage under Blue Jackets’ coaches (2nd highest 5-on-5 total ice time this season) and would generally post good counting stats, with the towering blueliner on pace for at least 40 points in his past 5 seasons.

Unfortunately, goals and points can’t paper over all of Jones’ flaws, mostly being that the Blue Jackets were often hemmed in their own zone and gave up a greater number of chances with him on the ice, with his shot- and expected goals share hovering under 50% at five-on-five. When you’re playing that much, that’s a lot of time to be underwater chance-wise, and definitely not becoming of the third highest paid defenceman.

It’s not impossible that Jones can generate above-average results next season and especially when he’s somewhere he wants to be, but the subsequent extension handed out by Chicago could be a poison pill in the not-so-distant future. Ask Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, or Marc-Edouard Vlasic how their deals have turned out.

Once Jones indicated he was unlikely to return to Ohio once his contract expired, the Blue Jackets could have been excused for settling for a depressed trade return, but they did well to procure two early round picks and a burgeoning offensive defenceman who looks poised to take on greater responsibility within the Blue Jackets’ system.

Boqvist’s most intriguing trait is his ability to complete controlled carries of the puck into his opponent’s defensive zone, allowing his team to set up their offense with possession. According to Corey Sznajder, Boqvist’s completion rate of 61% is just above the NHL’s best defenceman in this regard (Roman Josi with 60%), albeit in only about a quarter of Josi’s workload.

Boqvist was also given some top power play time with the Hawks last season and could transition into the same role with the Blue Jackets, although Zach Werenski can claim seniority in that department. His development will be fun to watch and Columbus has found themselves a real talented prospect in Jones’ stead.

For a team who has had trouble securing their stars to long-term commitments (Bobrovsky, Panarin, Dubois, Rick Nash), filling out their depth chart with young players under team control and high draft picks seems to be their most feasible avenue to success.

The Verdict: The Blue Jackets acquired some valuable pieces for their rebuild, including a promising defenceman who can immediately be inserted into the lineup. The Blackhawks gave up a lot for a name-brand blueliner who will play a ton of minutes, but whose on-ice results might not match the hype. It’s not a part of the trade, but the astronomical contract commitment makes this deal a loss for the Blackhawks.

Philadelphia Flyers acquire forward Cam Atkinson from Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Jakub Voracek.

Philadelphia continued their thorough roster reconstruction in a straight swap of highly-paid forwards, with Cam Atkinson and former Blue Jackets’ forward Jakub Voracek, each given a much-needed change of scenery.

From the Blue Jackets’ perspective, shedding the slightly older Atkinson rids them of a contract that had an additional year remaining compared to Voracek’s, and one that was restricted by a no-trade clause which likely hampered the potential return. With Columbus’ recently parting ways with captain Nick Foligno, Pierre-Luc Dubois, David Savard, and Seth Jones, the franchise has clearly chosen to begin another period of retooling, with only five players under contract beyond next season.

The Flyers’ split with Voracek seemed written on the wall, as recent reports of discontent combined with trades involving Gostisbehere, Ristolainen, and Ellis signalling a new era in Philadelphia. 

Even with Voracek the downslope of his career, his playmaking remains a strong suit. His 11 primary assists at 5-on-5 was tied for 31st among all NHL skaters, and he generated 1.35 high danger passes (those completed from behind the net or across the slot) per 60 minutes, third most among Flyers’ forwards.

Blue Jackets will hope that he forms an instant connection with Patrik Laine, who they acquired early last season and whose contract is up for renewal this summer. If he is to stay, he’ll need to be persuaded that GM Jarmo Kekalainen can surround him with other offensive weapons.

Atkinson is no slouch however, with the undersized winger potting 213 goals in 627 career games (a 28 goal pace over 82 games), and only being two years removed from a 41-goal season, although his production in recent seasons does stir up some concern, with only 27 goals in 100 games since 2019. His reduced cap hit and playing style offers increased flexibility on and off the ice for the  Flyers, and will hope that their new mix will reap playoff success next season.

The Verdict: The Flyers and Blue Jackets exchange troublesome contracts with both players having something left in the tank despite being on the wrong side of 30. I give the Flyers the edge for the increased flexibility and cap space that Atkinson’s contract gives them.

Data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving Hockey, and Natural Stat Trick. All contract information via CapFriendly.

Top photo of Seth and Caleb Jones from @NHLBlackhawks on Twitter.

5 Players Who Could End Up in Seattle After Expansion Draft Weekend

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Last week’s awarding of the Stanley Cup and Nikita Kucherov’s hilarious post-game interview officially marked the conclusion of the 2020-21 NHL season and while a brief summer of recuperation is on the docket, the league calendar never sleeps as the busiest part of the offseason will be upon us within a fortnight.

The NHL has designated this Saturday, July 17th, as the deadline for each franchise to submit a final player protection list ahead of the expansion draft on the 21st, with several teams facing the conundrum of losing a useful roster player for nothing, or being forced to trade them for pennies on the dollar in order to recoup assets.

CapFriendly’s invaluable expansion draft simulator gives users the opportunity to emulate the entire expansion process themselves, from determining each franchise’s protection list and selecting skaters from the resulting pool of exposed players.

As such, the following table represents my best estimate of the Kraken’s initial roster following the expansion draft, but keep in mind that buyouts, trades, and the waiving of No-Movement clauses may alter the expansion landscape ahead of Saturday’s deadline.

Don’t bother checking back in a week once the final selections are made public, this is it. Trust me.

It’ll be more useful to evaluate Seattle’s roster following the expansion and entry drafts, and once the initial hoopla of free agency subsides, but the roster should not drastically differ from what I’ve presented.

Now, let’s take a closer look at five of the more intriguing players who could find themselves perusing real-estate near the Space Needle in a few weeks’ time.

1. Mark Giordano – D, Calgary Flames

The Flames’ captain will likely be the most recognizable and decorated skater to be exposed to Seattle, and would be an inspired choice to take on the same role with the fledgling franchise.

Over a 15-year NHL career entirely spent with the Flames, the Toronto native is 2nd in total games played and 8th in total points in franchise history, and 3rd among all defensemen.

Giordano is three years removed from being awarded his first, and only Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defence-man, scoring 74 points in 78 games during the 2018-19 season.

This season, Giordano led all Calgary blue liners in scoring with 26 points in 56 games and continued to have a positive impact while defending, as his pairing with Chris Tanev ranked 3rd in expected goals percentage and 9th in shot-share among defensive pairings with at least 100 minutes played together at 5-on-5 while starting a majority of their shifts in the defensive zone.

Even in the twilight of his career, Giordano remains one of Calgary’s best puck movers, exiting the zone skating with possession on 55% of all attempts, ranking in the top quartile of the league.

However, Calgary’s strategy for transitioning the puck did not often come through their defensemen, as all of their blue liners ranked below the league average in exit attempts per 60 minutes, meaning Giordano may not be as effective with extremely high usage.

Via Corey Sznajder

Giordano also still defends the blufeline well, leading the Flames in the number of chances allowed off of a zone entry demonstrating he can still keep opponents out of dangerous scoring areas off of the rush.

For those reasons, his inclusion on this list may be surprising, but his role on the Calgary blueline has gradually shrunk in recent seasons and the franchise may be looking to transition to a younger crop of players.

Despite turning 38 this October, Giordano has only appeared in 23 total playoff games over his career and the Flames have struggled to achieve significant post-season success, with the franchise only advancing past the second round once during his tenure.

The rearguard has also seen a reduction in his average ice-time since the aforementioned Norris season, and was displaced as the main defence man on the power play by Rasmus Andersson as the season progressed.

Further, his results away from Tanev suggest that the former Canuck was doing most of the heavy lifting on the pair, and although Giordano was still around 50% in most possession metrics apart from Tanev, he might do best with a defensively sound partner who can make up for his gradual physical decline.

While there are some risks surrounding his age, Giordano’s contract expires next summer and the associated $6.75 million cap hit would help Seattle reach the cap floor for their inaugural season.

Both Cup contenders and those on the playoff bubble look for help on defence and in the leadership department come the trade deadline and often pay exorbitant prices to do so, which should leave the Kraken with some assets if they decide to part ways.

Even if Giordano performs poorly, the short contract length coupled with Seattle’s relatively low expectations makes his selection a worthwhile gamble for the Kraken.

His admirable history of charity work would also be a welcome addition to the Seattle community.

2. Jake Allen – G, Montreal Canadiens

With franchise icon Carey Price backstopping the organization to an unexpected Stanley Cup Final appearance this past season, Allen is almost guaranteed to be exposed by the Canadiens.

However, without Allen’s regular season contributions, Montreal may have not even qualified for the playoffs in the first place.

The soon-to-be 31-year-old net minder played in more games than Price this season, and outplayed his counterpart to keep Montreal in the playoff hunt with an 11-12-5 record and a .907 save percentage.

Allen’s current contract dictates that he will be owed just under $3 million for the next two seasons, which would be entirely manageable for the Kraken and could be more affordable than some of his comparables in free agency. 

His career results have been solid but unspectacular, with Allen posting a career save percentage of .912, which roughly resembles the league average.

Although he is likely at his best in a backup role, Allen has shown he can handle a starter’s workload by playing a majority of his team’s games in 5 of the past 6 seasons.

His results suggest that Allen should be considered a 1A/1B option for most teams as he is within or around the top 30 in most goaltending metrics across the past 3 NHL campaigns.

Since the 2018-19 season, Allen has posted the 30th best save percentage in all situations (.911) among goalies with at least 1000 minutes played, while playing the 30th most games played in that time.

Using goals saved above average (GSAA) which accounts for the quality of chances a goaltender faces, Allen is 33rd in that category according to Natural Stat Trick, suggesting he is not necessarily fazed by having to face a greater number of dangerous opportunities.

He is perhaps most infamously known for being benched in favour of rookie sensation Jordan Binnington in 2018-19, who took over the St. Louis net at midseason and led them from last place in the NHL to the Stanley Cup Final where they defeated the Boston Bruins in 7 games.

Surprisingly, Allen has had several strong showings in the playoffs, as his career .924 save percentage in 29 career playoff games is well above his regular season average.

Allen’s favourable contract situation and dependable career performance suggests he could form part of a competitive goaltending platoon for Seattle next season. He could also be flipped at the trade deadline for future assets to a team looking for insurance in goal, giving the Kraken greater flexibility in roster construction and making his selection all the more likely. 

3. Tyler Johnson – F, Tampa Bay Lightning

For all of the Lightning’s cunning maneuvering around the salary cap this season, it will be near impossible to keep all of their Cup-winning roster intact for next year, as key contributors such as Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman will likely receive large paydays in free agency from franchise’s eager to augment their stars with dependable role players.

Johnson’s name has been floated around as a Seattle target from the moment the new franchise was announced, with many already inserting the undersized forward from Spokane into the Kraken lineup well before the expansion draft.

His contract is a bit rich for the Lightning, as his three years remaining for $5 million a season is untenable for the cap-strapped franchise and especially for a player who has seen his role greatly diminished in recent seasons because of poor play and the emergence of younger, cheaper teammates such as Ross Colton and Mathieu Joseph.

Johnson was 10th among regular Lightning forwards in 5-on-5 ice time this season and only scored 22 points, the lowest usage and point totals of his career since his rookie season. His age (about to turn 31), reduced role and the fact that he was placed on waivers this season are probable indicators of his future in Tampa.

Despite his unsavoury contract, Johnson remains a serviceable player in the right situation. As Seattle will have tons of cap space, his salary is palatable for a franchise that is not expected to immediately contend for a Cup.

Johnson boasts 4 seasons of at least 20 goals on his resume, and his 2014-15 playoffs where he tallied 23 points in 26  games during Tampa’s run to the final, shows he can elevate his play in high-pressure situations. 

Even with his play and usage declining in recent years, Johnson is a versatile forward who contributes to Tampa’s transition game and has a nose for the dirty areas around the crease.

The veteran centre paced the Lightning in scoring chances off of rebounds (1.16 per 60 minutes) and was among the league leaders in that department, suggesting that his offensive instincts are still intact.

His above-average ability (55% success rate) at carrying the puck into the offensive zone allowed the Lightning to maintain possession and establish territorial dominance in the offensive zone through their strong cycle strategy along the boards and below the goal-line.

Johnson is right beside Steven Stamkos.

Johnson’s performance in Tampa’s Stanley Cup triumph this past season alongside Pat Maroon and Colton meant the  Lightning were able to feast on opposing teams’ fourth lines while their stars did battle elsewhere, with the trio finishing 4th in expected goals for percentage at 5v5 for lines with at least 100 minutes played in the playoffs.

He also remains a decent face-off man, hovering around 50% for his career and still positively impacts the run of play for his team when on the ice which would allow the Kraken to move him around the lineup as a type of utility-man.

While I am skeptical of boosting a player’s playoff resume especially if they are well beyond their peak years, but Johnson is still an NHL-caliber forward and is second in Lightning history in playoff games played, giving some of the Kraken’s younger skaters a respected veteran to learn from and emulate.

Tampa will likely need to swing a significant asset depleting deal with the Kraken to entice them to select Johnson over Yanni Gourde or Ondrej Palat who are younger and have shorter contract commitments, but the undrafted forward is a prime candidate for a career rejuvenation on the west coast if utilized appropriately.

4. Shayne Gostisbehere – D, Philadelphia Flyers

Shayne Gostisbehere’s NHL career thus far has been turbulent to say the least. The 28-year-old blue liner hailing from Florida burst onto the scene in 2015-16, garnering an All-Rookie Team selection and being named a Calder Trophy finalist on the back of scoring 46 points in 64 games for the Flyers.

He followed that remarkable debut season with an even more productive campaign two years later, with his 65 points in 78 games earning him 10th place in Norris voting at the age of 24, and cemented his rise as one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive defensemen.

Unfortunately, the next two seasons were difficult for a myriad of reasons.His on-ice performance has been marred by occasional defensive lapses, persistent knee pain, and being healthy scratched by coaches frustrated by his inability to reach the highs of his early seasons.

Somehow, this past year was even worse for the defence man, as Gostisbehere contracted COVID-19 prior to the start of the season, had trouble fully recovering from his knee injury, placed on waivers by the team, and was suspended just before the end of the regular season.

You’re probably wondering why Seattle would want to claim a player with so many red flags waving feverishly around his long-term health and performance.

Yet, Gostisbehere’s profile screams worthwhile reclamation project, and the Kraken’s head coach, Dave Hakstol, has a pre-existing relationship with the blue liner as he was Gostisbehere’s first coach in Philadelphia.

Up until his first injury, the defender posted 187 points in 298 games from 2014-15 to 2018-19, a 51 point pace over 82 game season and one that would suggest he still has more to give if put in a more favourable situation.

Gostisbehere also remains one of the Flyers’ most prominent defenceman, as he finished 3rd in time on ice in 2020-21, and led the team in power play minutes. However, heralded prospect Cam York was close behind in total deployment and could replace Gostisbehere’s offensive production at a fraction of the cost.

Philadelphia relied on Gostisbehere to transition play out of the zone, as his 45% completion rate was second on the team and was tops in avoiding failed exits as the Flyers’ most dependable option.

His evasive skating has also proven frustrating for oncoming forecheckers, as his elusiveness while carrying the puck has resulted in the 7th best penalty differential among all defencemen, which sets up his team for the man-advantage where Gostisbehere does most of his damage.

This season, the man affectionately known as Ghost Bear finished 3rd in individual expected goals created among NHL defencemen with at least 50 mins played on the power play. Within the right scheme, Gostibehere can feast on opposing penalty kills and tilt the ice in his team’s favour. Even with his recent struggles, Gostisbehere still ranks 35th in power play points by a defence man over the past three seasons, even ahead of new Edmonton Oiler Duncan Keith.

What? He’s old and no longer any good? But Ken Holland said he was good and Holland has never been wrong about anything ever.

Sorry, got a bit off track there. Back to Gostisbehere.

Although he’s most well known for his offensive capabilities, Gostisbehere is respectable defensively, being league average at preventing chances against off of a clean zone entry. He was also above 50% in unblocked shot share and expected goals share at 5-on-5.

However, he is heavily sheltered when it comes to zone starts, as he is deployed in the offensive zone to start his shift 18% of the time according to MoneyPuck, which was the 6th most among all NHL defensemen. Gostisbehere can hold his own in terms of preventing dangerous chances against, but it would be prudent for Seattle to pair him with a defence-first partner to cover for his mistakes.

His deal has 2 years remaining at $4.5 million per year, and he is only owed $3.25 million in actual salary which may make it more palatable for the Kraken while helping them reach the cap floor next season.

If Gostisbehere is to return to his peak, there needs to be comprehensive buy-in across the organization, from the management to the trainers managing his physical health. Hakstol’s presence coupled with a savvy analytics department in Seattle suggests that the group may understand how to best manage the unlucky blueliner, and could result in a welcome return to form.

5. Vince Dunn – D, St. Louis Blues

The young blue liner will likely be the victim of a number’s game in St. Louis, with the 24-year-old buried on the Blues’ depth chart behind several more established veterans.

Despite Dunn averaging the highest ice time of his fledgling career, the pending RFA only ranked 5th in all situations among all St. Louis defencemen and missed out on the playoffs entirely through injury, with Dunn last having played on April 24th.

Although the Blues have committed extensive term to both Krug and Justin Faulk, it’s a bit confusing to think that they would leave such a promising talent exposed in the expansion draft.

Dunn’s 20 points in 43 games this season represented the most productive pace of his career, and his even-strength points per 60 minutes would have him 84th among all NHL defensemen, firmly within the top half of the league.

The Mississauga native was one of the Blues’ most successful defenders in terms of completing clean zone exits with possession, rather than simply rimming the puck around the boards or off of the glass. Leaguewide, Dunn was above average in exiting the zone with possession and put up better results than his more acclaimed teammate in Torey Krug.

Dunn is also not shy about jumping up into the play and joining the rush, as led the Blues in individual scoring chances per 60 minutes, demonstrating his strong offensive awareness and composure in scoring areas.

He also featured heavily on the power play this season as only Krug amassed more minutes on the man advantage. What was surprising to note was that Dunn was arguably more efficient in his deployment, with his 5.83 points per 60 minutes (12th in the NHL among defensemen who played at least 50 minutes on the power play) ranking higher than his teammate, who finished in 20th.

Just as I’ve been trumpeting his offensive skills, it is only fair to note his defensive flaws. His on-ice rates of shot- and expected goals-share are both well below 50%, and is somewhat concerning when you consider he hasn’t necessarily been fed the most difficult minutes to this point. Dunn is also a bit of a liability when it comes to zone entry defence, as he allowed nearly 4 entries with chances against per 60 minutes this past season, the 2nd worst rate on the Blues blueline.

Surprisingly the Dunn-Bortuzzo pair was 4th in the NHL among pairs with 100 minutes played in expected goals against per 60 minutes, suggesting that pairing him with a steady defensively conscious partner would allow him to thrive in that he would be more free to play to his strengths while ensuring the team is not bleeding chances when he is on the ice.

He isn’t afraid to throw the body in any case.

Perhaps I could be too hard on the Blues who may ultimately recognize Dunn’s tantalizing potential but may not have the available ice time to play him as much as is merited by his early results. 

Rather, it is a comment on the mismanagement demonstrated by several general managers across the league that aging defensemen moving out of their prime are awarded hefty contracts in favour of trusting burgeoning prospects who come in at a much lower cost, even if they have yet to fully absorb the intricacies of NHL defending in high-leverage minutes.

However, St. Louis’ short-sightedness could ultimately be Seattle’s gain and don’t be surprised to see Dunn break out next season in an expanded role.

Future Outlook

Like Vegas, Seattle will have been afforded more favourable drafting rules than those observed by previous expansion franchises, with the NHL painfully learning that it is better for league and expansion market that their team is competitive sooner than later. I’m sure that Tim Leiweke and the rest of the Oakmont group would not have settled for less when considering the immense $500 million fee they were required to pay the league upon entry.

This reality means that the Kraken should be competitive next season could, with a bevy of cap room and potential draft picks acquired through expansion side deals, make a splash in free agency (Dougie Hamilton, Taylor Hall) or through trade (Jack Eichel).

The franchise will likely have an interesting mix of veteran talent and unproven skaters looking to make their mark in the league. The NHL’s gaze will be fixed upon the Pacific Northwest to see if they can replicate the success of their expansion cousins from Sin City. Improbable, but not impossible. 

With that being said, release the Kraken.

All data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, MoneyPuck and Natural Stat Trick. Contract information from CapFriendly.

Gold Drafting and the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery

            Last week, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that the NHL was once again exploring the possibility of altering the draft lottery process, after doing so only a few seasons prior. The news reignited passionate debate about the faults of the current system, especially as it pertains to whether or not the teams that deserve higher selections, are actually receiving an appropriate spot in the draft order.

Further concerns were raised that these changes would just be another ham-fisted attempt by the league to foster and prioritize parity over entertainment, by continuing to introduce convoluted and superficial adjustments that do very little to address the issues inherent to the current format. 

            Many fans and prominent media figures take issue with how the draft lottery, as it currently stands, simultaneously incentivizes losing and diminishes the quality of play as teams trade away players whose performances are leading to more victories than losses, holding out stars to recover from injuries – wink, wink – and purposefully icing poor rosters, while fans celebrate as the losses accumulate and bring them closer to the saviour that is destined (it’ll happen this time!) to drag the franchise out of perpetual mediocrity.

This reality ostensibly represents an overwhelming rejection of the competitive nature of professional sports, and makes brazen attempts at tanking more of a story than the actual on-ice product.

NHL executives assuring Gary Bettman that they’re trying their best

Current Draft Lottery Format

            Before I present an alternative, it’s worth explaining how the draft lottery is currently constructed, to identify possible areas of improvement. At the moment, each team that does not make the playoffs in a given season has a chance to pick within the top three, with a separate draw determining the order of the first three selections.

To ensure that the league’s worst teams are in the best position to select the most highly touted prospects, they are awarded the best odds and are assured of not dropping more than three spots from their actual place in the standings as a result of the lottery draw.

Presently, the three teams with the lowest point totals are given 49.4, 38.8, and 33.9 percent chances respectively of picking within the top three of the draft, with the remaining percentages signifying the probability that they pick outside of that range.

The current distribution of draft lottery odds, courtesy of tankathon.com

            Although even the most abysmal of teams cannot wholly guarantee that they will end up with the first overall pick, many find a season or two of renting the NHL’s basement for the purposes of boosting their lottery odds to be palatable when potential franchise cornerstones such as Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews or Shane Wright are within reach.

What is essentially an intentional concession of a playoff spot is  especially tempting for those teams that may not be active participants in free agency, find themselves on many players’ No-Trade lists, and regularly watch their marquee stars depart for more enticing locales.

This is often due to a confluence of factors including increased chances of immediate post-season success, lower tax rates, a warmer or more mild climate, a vibrant night-life or their proximity and attractiveness to sponsors. Or whatever it is that Taylor Hall saw in the Buffalo Sabres. Yikes.

A ‘Golden’ Alternative

            Yet, several proposals have been put forth by fans, league executives, and media members to tackle the issue of tanking, the most exciting of which I will briefly explain and then apply to the results of the 2014-15 NHL season.

The circumstances surrounding the 2015 draft, with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel ranked either first or second across nearly every draft board of consequence, meant that one of the most highly touted prospects in a decade awaited the franchise that would have their numbers drawn in that year’s lottery.

Further, the 2015 iteration has been considered one of the deepest in recent memory, with franchise pillars in McDavid and Eichel later being followed by all-star level talent in Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Mat Barzal and Kyle Connor, and supplemented by solid, unheralded players currently having breakout seasons in Conor Garland and Joel Eriksson Ek.

Noted Selke candidate Eriksson Ek

            The “Gold drafting” model, presented in a paper at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference by the eponymous Adam Gold, essentially dictates that draft order is determined by each team’s point totals in games played once they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. This assumes that the worst teams will be eliminated earlier and would therefore have more opportunities to accumulate points and secure a higher draft slot. Simple enough, yeah? 

            This suggestion has gained traction both online and within the media sphere as a system which would ensure that the NHL’s worst teams are still given an advantage in their pursuit of a higher pick, while assuaging the NHL’s fears that winning would be an afterthought as teams lasered in on the belle of that season’s draft ball.

Having several teams pre-emptively surrendering points tarnishes the league’s image in the eyes of fans, potential sponsors, and TV networks, restricting their revenue streams, and myopically hindering their own efforts to market to a wider audience, making it more likely that adopting avenues to encourage player movement, such as a raising the salary cap, are financially unfeasible.

Striking Gold in the 2014-15 Season

            Applying this model to the 2014-15 season offers a practical example as to how Gold drafting could have changed the fortunes of several of the league’s largest exporters of armoured war vehicles.

The Gold model would have essentially done away with the numerous iterations of what had been dubbed “The McEichel Bowl”, the most notorious of which was a late-season matchup between the pitiful Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres that saw fans of each team cheering raucously for the opposing team’s goals.

While as humorous as it was bewildering, the scene served as an unpleasant reminder that competitiveness was not a pressing priority for many teams in their race (crawl?) to the bottom. 

            Now, without further ado, here is what the draft order would look like if Gold drafting was in place for the 2014-15 season, with each team’s actual draft position following the lottery compared to where they would be placed based on their Gold points. It is important to note that these would most likely not be the actual results as the incentives for winning would be flipped, but let’s suspend reality in the name of fun.

2015 Draft Order using Gold Drafting

            At first glance, there are some notable results. Buffalo and Edmonton are the first teams eliminated but would remain in the exact same spots in the draft, mostly owing to the fact that each team would have about a month until the end of the regular season to accumulate points.

Columbus, Colorado, and Dallas are the biggest what-ifs in this scenario, as their actual 2015 Draft positions are much lower than what would be expected under the Gold model. Columbus’ actual draft position grades out as especially punitive as they skyrocketed up the draft order by amassing points in all of their games following elimination and retroactively obtaining the fourth overall selection, with fewer games played than Toronto, Philadelphia, Arizona, and New Jersey.

The debacle that was Arizona’s post-elimination performance was particularly egregious as they accrued the seventh most Gold points despite being the third team eliminated from contention, and yet they were rewarded with a top three selection.

Although the Gold system would have undoubtedly forced them to renege on some of their more blatantly suspect roster decisions and leading to more of an honest attempt at winning, they should serve as the primary culprit in the movement to change how draft order is decided.

How Does this Affect the League?

            As has been demonstrated on numerous occasions, scouting teenagers and projecting their professional futures is a challenging task, even at the top of the rankings, where prospects are thought to be more of reliable commodity.

The most infamous examples of draft busts within the esteemed group of first overall picks in recent memory include Alexandre Daigle (Ottawa Senators, 1993), Patrik Stefan (Atlanta Thrashers, 1999), and Nail Yakupov (Edmonton Oilers, 2012), who all underachieved for a plethora of reasons related to poor relationships with coaches, inability to acclimate to the NHL, or decline related to suffering significant injuries.

However, completing this exercise in 2021 allows us the benefit of hindsight, and to contemplate how teams may have fared as a result of occupying a different draft position.

            At the top are McDavid and Eichel, two superstars who would still go first and second in a re-draft to Edmonton and Buffalo and would most likely remain in NHL purgatory judging by the historic incompetence of their management groups, frustratingly incapable of capitalizing on the immense talent falling into their lap. However, with Columbus now picking third, several notable events may not have come to pass in the following years. 

            Columbus’ actual selection happened to be collegiate star Zach Werenski at 8thoverall, eventually forming one half of their top pairing alongside Seth Jones, who was later acquired in return for center Ryan Johansen (age 23). At the time of the 2015 draft, Columbus’ center depth on a given night consisted of some combination of Johansen, Boone Jenner (22), Brandon Dubinsky (29), and Alexander Wennberg (21).

Now, with several budding young centers in the pipeline, the Blue Jackets may still have picked highly-regarded defenseman Noah Hanifin with the third pick over center Dylan Strome, suggesting that picking either one of Hanifin or Strome would still result in Columbus eventually following through with the Johansen-Jones deal, or some form of it, to bolster their defence corps and would result in somewhat similar playoff success.

Former Columbus Center Ryan Johansen

            However, if they selected Mitch Marner with their pick, they would have their true offensive star in the vein of Artemi Panarin, who they would acquire in 2017 for Brandon Saad, but one that would have been under team control for a longer period of time.

It is not difficult to imagine that Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who left Columbus as free agents in the summer of 2019, may have viewed the organization’s future differently with Marner waiting in the wings, and elected to re-sign.

    Additionally, residing in a smaller market may have suppressed Marner’s salary demands as a result of a lack of the hometown boy-type leverage that he had over Kyle Dubas, and his status as a rising star may have made Columbus a more attractive destination for free agents who would relish the opportunity to play alongside him in the lineup.

Yet, we must account for the presence of the strict taskmaster John Tortorella, whose abrasive coaching style has unnerved several young talents including Johansen, Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and most recently, Patrick Laine, and one must wonder if the same would occur with Marner, leading him to demand a trade and eventually blossoming elsewhere. Although Columbus is admittedly an extreme example, it is important to note how quickly an organization’s outlook can change by hitting on a pick. 

            As previously mentioned, the first round of the deep 2015 draft gave teams the chance to draft one of several stars and one has to wonder how the fortunes of teams such as Arizona, Carolina, and New Jersey may have changed as a result of picking any one of those players in lieu of the actual underachievers they selected in Dylan Strome, Noah Hanifin, and Pavel Zacha.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were also rumoured to be interested in selecting Hanifin, a pick which would have left them lacking a dynamic sidekick for Auston Matthews, something that may not have mattered if Toronto does not win the draft lottery the following season. Evidently, even this minor change would drastically transform the balance of the NHL half a decade later. 

Benefits of Gold Drafting

            Applying the Gold method to the 2014-15 season teases out several of the significant benefits it would offer to the NHL and frankly, any professional league which allocates new players via a draft.

First, and most importantly, teams who earnestly try to win are the ones who are ultimately rewarded with the opportunity to select higher-ranked prospects in this scenario. With players who can immediately vault a team into contention such as McDavid and Eichel on the line and accumulating points being the only mechanism to pick them, regularly suffering nightly blow-outs is no longer a viable avenue to success.

This should push teams to ice their best possible rosters through to the end of the year and ensures that fans are paying for a competitive product. It would expose executives who rely on failure to build their success rather than those who take risks and make shrewd signings and trades to improve their teams.

In a league notorious for recycling the same names for management positions, this may result in an influx of new and innovative hockey minds.

Pictured: A teenager so talented, fans cheered against their teams for the chance to select him

            The Gold plan also offers the NHL a built-in marketing opportunity, with the battle for Gold points resembling a type of in-season tournament, and one whose prize could tangibly affect the quality of the team in future seasons.

Imagine an NFL Red Zone style channel, purely dedicated to showcasing the final drive for that year’s prized prospect. Take the Arizona-Buffalo game I mentioned earlier, instead of two fanbases cheering for a loss, they would be clamouring for the coaches and general managers to put the team in the best position to win, and for players to execute to the best of their ability.

These matchups would hold more intrigue for viewers and replace the slog towards the conclusion of the season with suspenseful, high-stakes entertainment.

Drawbacks of Gold Drafting

            Despite the clear positives of this method, there are some issues that may need to be addressed. Some teams would undoubtedly try to lose as many games as possible, as early as possible, to begin their accumulation of Gold points.

Other teams may just simply be poorly constructed, and be punished regardless of their effort level. Trading players who may not fit the age profile of the team or are looking to play for a contender are common ways for poor teams to accumulate draft capital and re-stock their prospect cupboard. Removing significant assets via trade may result in their inability to win games when it matters and limits their ability to make necessary transactions for their future.

All of these are valid arguments against the Gold plan, but the fact that the worst teams would still have the most runway to accumulate points, should act as enough of a safeguard against inadvertent punishments.

What Now?

            Sports are often a platform for the most polarizing debates of what-if, supplying many a daydream for long-suffering fans of franchises that were agonizingly close to claiming sporting legends as their own.

Think Michael Jordan being passed over by the Trailblazers in favour of Sam Bowie, or Tom Brady falling to the New England Patriots in the sixth round, unwittingly setting the foundation for one of the most memorable dynastic empires in football and sports history.

Although countless hours could be devoted to analyzing the repercussions of altering the past, even the lone example of the Columbus Blue Jackets should demonstrate that the Gold model would significantly adjust how teams are incentivised to play, and reward teams whose sincere efforts at competitive relevance are more reflective of the spirit of athletic competition.